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President’s Blog: The Importance of Napkin Sketches

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Architects and designers are creative beings who can easily find inspiration at any moment. A napkin sketch is an elemental expression of thought. Napkin sketches have been a go-to companion for those who find spur of the moment inspiration allowing for the exploration of thoughts and ideas with their hands. You can express primal feelings, a memory, even a philosophy. It’s a telling exercise about how people think, what is important to them, and the spirit of their thoughts. These little pieces of paper displaying ideas can eventually be turned into greater works of art.

For the fifth year in a row, our chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students has put together a wonderful Napkin Sketch Auction for Friday, June 10. It’s a way for students to raise money for their activities, use their leadership skills to organize something special for the school, and contribute to our school spirit.

This event began as a “sketch for a sketch” project where our students crafted their own napkin sketches to capture the attention of well-known architects. These creations are then mailed to architects from around the world with a request for an original sketch that can be auctioned off during the event. This year students have received napkin sketches from more than 20 prominent architects. It’s a reminder that in an age of computer-aided design, these individuals still value the art of thinking visually and drawing by hand. Their sketches also demonstrate that good architects are also good communicators. They use sketches not only for self-reflection and self-thought, but also as communication.

I was particularly inspired and contributed five sketches. Let me tell you a little about them.

This drawing of a tree is the first napkin sketch I did for the auction. It shows the tree not just above ground, but below, associating the strength of the tree with the strength of the root structure beneath it. For a tree—and for creativity—to flower, it must depend on the foundation below it. Great ideas require deep roots.

Serious thought is informed by folly, which is what I was exploring with the structure on a beach.

When I was being interviewed by the Union-Tribune, reporter Roger Showley asked me if our students would work on concepts for a border wall. My response was that the first question a great designer asks is why, why are you doing this? Building a wall is really an exercise that does all the wrong things. Instead of sketching a wall, I sketched a beacon for our harbor.

My fourth napkin sketch is philosophical. It represents the circle of life from the cave house to the cloud house with the six orientations—north, west, east, south, up, and down—that connect us with the architecture and the land as a mediator. This sketch connects Western, Eastern, and Native American theology with an environmentally sensitive architectural and design philosophy.

My final napkin sketch is about memory. The last time I was in Athens, I stayed at a hotel with a spectacular view of the Acropolis and I spent several hours sketching it. The napkin is a memory of the Acropolis and that experience.

What are you sketching?

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